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A No-Frills Buyers’ Guide to January Books

Perfect
By Rachel Joyce; Random House; 400 pages; $25
At the heart of Perfect are two hit-and-run accidents, one in 1972, the other four decades later. In the first, two boys scheme to protect one’s mother after she crashes in a poor part of town. In the second, an unstable man gets his foot run over. Perfect touches on class, mental illness, and the ways a psyche is formed or broken. It has the tenor of a horror film, and yet at the end, in some kind of contortionist trick, the narrative unfolds into an unexpected burst of redemption. Buy It

Andrew’s Brain
By E.L. Doctorow; Random House; 200 pages; $26
We follow a dialogue between a psychiatrist and the title character, a neuroscientist who might have accidentally caused the deaths of his infant daughter and wife. As Andrew recaps and rewrites his backstory, ambiguity reigns: Who’s the shrink? Is Andrew in prison? Is Andrew’s Brain a stealth sci-fi novel? Things seem to build toward a clarifying reveal, but one never comes. Andrew’s Brain is an intriguing enough puzzle, but it’s missing some important pieces. Skip It

Shovel Ready
By Adam Sternbergh; Crown; 256 pages; $24
The setup for this darkly funny first book by the culture editor of The New York Times Magazine (and a former New York editor): New York has been decimated by a dirty bomb and three superstorms. The wealthy who haven’t fled the city spend most of their time tapped into the “limnosphere,” a virtual reality. We follow Spademan, a garbage collector turned hit man hired for a complicated job that draws him into the limnosphere and raises thoughtful questions about what happens when we get too close to our technology. Buy It

Little Failure
By Gary Shteyngart; Random House; 368 pages; $27
Shteyngart’s family emigrated from St. Petersburg in 1979, when Igor, age 7, became Gary, and his memoir is a catalogue of indignities, awkwardnesses, and the splenetic, spluttering rage in which difficult but loving parents marinate their children. Shteyngart’s at his funniest when writing about the basic horribleness of Soviet consumer goods and the wondrous experience of eighties American consumption. Super, sad, probably true. Buy It

On Such a Full Sea
By Chang-Rae Lee; Riverhead; 352 pages; $28
Lee’s latest imagines an authoritarian future America in which Chinese refugees work massive urban farms in the remains of Baltimore serving more affluent towns. One worker, Fan, sets out in search of her disappeared lover, becoming a folk hero and inspiring her neighbors to question their rulers. The tired dystopian tropes Lee uses to evoke our current predicament—stratified societies, cruel market forces, a broken health-care system, etc.—are so heavy-handed that the book sometimes reads more like a diagnosis than a believable human story. Skip It

*This article originally appeared in the December 23, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine